Thousands of hurricane evacuees must soon pay their own rent or move out after receiving word that they are being dropped from a FEMA housing program they thought would last a year.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has declared about 12,000 families nationwide ineligible for housing assistance, in some cases because their hurricane-damaged homes were found to be habitable. Others were ineligible because their damaged homes were not their primary residence or because they were not head of the household.
About 38,000 other families still qualify for assistance through FEMA, but must complete new paperwork to remain eligible.
Some Hurricane Katrina and Rita evacuees received FEMA notices saying their aid was guaranteed only through April 30. But the agency said the actual deadline was May 31, and it recently granted Houston officials' request to extend it to June 30.
Scores of families who signed one-year apartment and home leases last fall, believing FEMA would pay all rent and utilities during the entire lease, are worried that they will be kicked to the curb.
‘I’m past frustration’
Gary Jones, 44, received a letter last week saying he was ineligible, although he said he has repeatedly sent to FEMA documents showing he owns his New Orleans home.
"To me right now, I'm past frustration," he said.
Since Katrina hit Aug. 29 and sent tens of thousands of Gulf Coast residents to other states, FEMA has distributed the aid by reimbursing cities for paying landlords.
Frank Michel, spokesman for Houston Mayor Bill White, said FEMA had indicated it would pay for a full year of housing.
However, FEMA spokesman Michael Widomski said the agency only said it would pay for up to 12 months and never guaranteed a full year. FEMA helped all evacuees who needed it and did not require them to meet eligibility standards at first, but is now switching to a program with stricter requirements, Widomski said.
ACORN gives appeal instruction
The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN, the nation's largest organization of low- and moderate-income families, has been going door to door in Houston telling storm victims how to appeal.
"People are too angry to be afraid," said Kemberly Samuels, 52, with ACORN's Katrina Survivors Association. "It's like FEMA has a trump card on us and they have our fate in their hands."
In Houston, between 8,500 and 8,900 of the 35,000 families receiving housing assistance got notices earlier this month, some saying they were ineligible because their homes in the hurricane-ravaged region were suitable for living, Michel said.
But after receiving calls from upset evacuees disputing those FEMA claims, the mayor sent a city team to New Orleans two weeks ago. Michel said 30 of the 47 homes they inspected could not be lived in because they had extensive damage or needed minor repairs but were in an area without utilities, grocery stores and other services.